Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian) rose--

Mr. Salmond: I see that I have provoked a response from one of the feudal superiors in this very Chamber. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman wants to give us some first-hand experience.

Mr. Home Robertson: I have been goaded, Madam Speaker. I hope that it will not come as too much of a shock to my hon. Friends to learn that I happen to be the feudal superior of the Barony of Eyemouth, which may sound rather a quaint title. It involves me in minor chores every now and then, such as signing legal documents for people. They are minor chores to me, but represent considerable legal expenses and all the rest of it for the people involved. It is a ludicrous anomaly. I do not like to sound too radical, but perhaps, before we get into the second millennium, it might be appropriate to abolish once and for all the feudal system in Scotland.

Mr. Salmond: I thank the hon. Gentleman. He will be delighted that his wish not to sound too radical will certainly be taken on board by his Front-Bench spokesman. The hon. Gentleman can now stand for new feudal superiority in Scotland.

He will also be pleased to know that the Scottish Land Commission has confirmed that most landowners are responsible, display an acceptable level of management and effect their duties as feudal superiors, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that one of the great difficulties is not just the inconvenience and expense that his own feudal estates and obligations can place on people, but the fact that an industry has now grown up on land speculation.

People buy up feudal superiorities not to cause some administrative inconvenience, not even to have the title, but to exact substantial sums and penalties on the people who are unfortunate enough to come within their maw. Many landowners are responsible, as the Scottish Land Commission confirmed, but that is to some extent a happy accident. The case I am making today is that there should be no lottery in Scottish land.

There are fears and doubts just now in Knoydart. The land market across Scotland is fluid. With perhaps the exception of the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, West

6 Nov 1996 : Column 1155

(Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) and the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), who knows who their superior or landlord actually is? No sane person can dispute the words of the hon. Gentleman or deny the need for real reform, some control and greater community involvement.

Landowners make a difference to people's lives, and I shall be detailing to the House the ways in which people from Lanarkshire to Aberdeenshire have had their lives blighted by landowners and land law.

I want to deal first with the problem of pre-emption. This aspect of feudal law is designed to give first claim of purchase to the feudal superior when a property is sold on, or if there has been a breach of a feu condition. I shall focus on one serious example which highlights the inherent problems caused by this remnant of the feudal era. It is a case which will impact either on thousands of former council house tenants who took advantage of the right-to-buy legislation to purchase their council home, or, alternatively, on every council tax payer in Scotland.

The former Ross and Cromarty district council became embroiled in a dispute with Broadland Properties, which, in 1991, became feudal superior for a number of council estates in Ross-shire. As superior, Broadlands sought to take advantage of the powers it retained in the feu, and is now claiming thousands of pounds to grant a waiver for the properties sold to the council tenants. I understand that the Court of Session has found in favour of feudal law and the rights of the superior. That legal principle will shortly be tested further in the House of Lords.

If the current position stands, I am advised that its impact might be felt by other councils, from Glasgow to the Borders, to Moray and right through the highlands. There is potential for vast sums to be paid from council funds to feudal superiors for rights which exist in law but which surely have no place in a decent society.

Hon. Members may be aware that the Government are proposing to abolish pre-emption for their own properties transferred under the forthcoming Transfer of Crofting Estates (Scotland) Bill. I ask a simple question: if that is good enough for the Government in a narrow piece of legislation, why not sweep away pre-emption across Scotland?

Pre-emption allows a remote landowner, or a feudal speculator, to interfere in the day-to-day life of ordinary people, and there is no possible justification for the exercise and abuse of those private property rights.

The unjustifiable aspects of feudal law are numerous, as I am about to demonstrate. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross for passing on a letter that she received from Mr. Brian Hamilton--a man currently dubbed in Scotland "the raider of the lost titles". Mr. Hamilton enclosed a letter he wrote in August to the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside, in which he went into some detail concerning the current law on prescription.

As things stand, after the registration of a deed, and followed by 10 years of possession of the property, that deed becomes unchallengeable. Mr. Hamilton pointed out that that allows those who register a deed for property that is not theirs to gain an unchallengeable title to it after 10 years. He failed, however, to point out to the Minister how that law has protected many people from the predatory investigations of companies like his own.

6 Nov 1996 : Column 1156

I want to bring some examples of Mr. Hamilton's activities to the House's attention. The first concerns two of my own constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Gauld, from King Edward in Banffshire. They were tenants of Grampian region in the Old Schoolhouse in King Edward. In 1984, they purchased their house from the regional council. One day before the exact 10th anniversary of their purchase, when they would have become the unchallenged owners, they were contacted by Cairnglen--a company specialising in feudal investigations, and were told that, in fact, they were not the real owners of their house.

Before I explain the Gaulds' case, I want to let the House know how Cairnglen operates. It seems to be run by an individual called Gordon Kerr, although there are various dummy directors and others involved in the operation. Mr. Kerr used to work for Grampian region, and I am told that, in that position, he had access to records regarding Grampian region's schools and educational properties. Mr. Kerr knew that, in the 19th century, across Grampian and the country, landowners gifted land and buildings to communities for use as schools. Those properties were rarely transferred, so, when the building ceased to be used for educational purposes, the ownership was open to question.

As I have already said, I have been told that Mr. Kerr is acting upon the knowledge he gained while an employee of Grampian region. He further investigates the properties that he has identified, locates the feudal superior, and then approaches him to offer a mutually beneficial agreement in return for that valuable information. The profits from that grubby exercise can be considerable.

Ordinary individuals are, of course, terrorised by the impact of Cairnglen's investigations. In the Gaulds' case, Mr. Kerr or his representative contacted their feudal superior, Captain Alexander Ramsay of Mar, who duly signed over a disposition in Cairnglen's favour, which was registered in the Register of Sasines on 22 March last year.

Mr. and Mrs. Gauld were fortunate in one respect--when they purchased the property, their solicitor had been far-seeing, because he took out an indemnity for £50,000 from the regional council. It has been reported, however, that the claim, which may be tested in court soon, is not for £50,000 but for as much as double that. Mr. and Mrs. Gauld now face a battle to stay in their own house, or the prospect of paying thousands of pounds on top of that indemnity to "re-purchase" it.

I blame the law for the Gaulds' predicament, but I also question the motives of those who search through old titles and take advantage of obscure clauses and ancient laws to cause such misery for ordinary people. I hope that those who are responsible for the action about to be raised against the Gaulds in the Court of Session now examine their actions and, if possible, their conscience. If they proceed with that claim, they will deserve the contempt and condemnation of society, and, I hope, every Member of the House.

Whether one considers the law of prescription from Mr. Hamilton's angle, or from that of the Gaulds, there is no doubt that change is required. Mr. Gauld was head teacher at King Edward's school for 25 years, and I believe that his wife taught at Turriff academy for the same length of time. They are pillars of the local community.

6 Nov 1996 : Column 1157

The defence offered by Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Kerr and others of their activities is that they are proceeding against incompetent lawyers or insurance companies, that the only individuals who suffer are regional councils, and that no one will notice the difference. I met the Gaulds earlier this year, and they have had two years of anxiety since the letter came through their door one day before they had the unquestioned title to their property. That retired couple have suffered such anxiety when they should be looking forward to a secure and safe retirement.

People like Mr. and Mrs. Gauld are the pawns in a game played by people like Mr. Kerr and Mr. Hamilton. Those who indulge in such activities and those who sign over their feudal entitlement to them bear a heavy burden of responsibility for the anxiety caused to hundreds of people--it is possible that it could become thousands of people--the length and breadth of Scotland.

Brian Hamilton has profited by many hundreds of thousands of pounds from his feudal speculation, and left lives and nerves shattered in his wake. The law is a mess, but the Government have done nothing to tackle the problem.

In Aberdeenshire, Mr. Hamilton purchased the remnants of the Huntly estate for a mere £2,500. In Kinnoir, he made £125,000 from Grampian region, which sold the property of redundant school buildings to a private bidder. Near Huntly, he proceeded with eviction action against teachers in two properties, and pocketed £150,000. By purchasing feudal superiorities from Aberdeen university, Mr. Hamilton has gained access to a claim for £750,000 of land in Portlethen.

Mr. Hamilton's purchases have not been limited to the Aberdeen area--he has properties in Dundee, Glencoe and Lanarkshire. He has blazed a trail which others are now following, and which poses a threat to many currently unaware and innocent home owners across the country.

Mr. Hamilton's most recent activities, in the village of Boghead in Lanarkshire, highlight yet another flaw in our land law. One case, involving a couple, the Reids, who face eviction and a bill for £30,000, has its roots in an issue already raised in a dispute over ownership, but Mr. Hamilton purchased the right to pursue that couple, and will legally profit from it.

The other cases involved casualty clauses in the ancient leasehold for a number of houses in the village. Again Mr. Hamilton has purchased a right to pursue individuals on the basis of obscure and mediaeval feudal clause. Efforts have already been made to clear those outdated mechanisms from our law, but, as the Boghead example shows, those previous attempts have failed. It is now surely time to clear up that section of feudal law, and I urge the Government to come forward with serious proposals to save others from experiencing the fear and doubts that Mr. Hamilton has created in Boghead.

The solicitor who represents the action group in Boghead, Mr. Cameron S. Fyfe, wrote recently to the Secretary of State for Scotland. He proposed two possible solutions that had been suggested by Professor Sinclair of Strathclyde university, who is an expert on land law. He received a letter from the Scottish Office on 23 October, and without going into detail, it basically stated that

6 Nov 1996 : Column 1158

nothing immediate is proposed to be done. That must be dismal news for the people of Boghead and frightening news for other people in Scotland who will be caught up in the legal tangles arising from Mr. Hamilton's profiteering from bad laws.

I have condemned Mr. Hamilton, but I would take as genuine his desire for land reform. Now, however, I shall further criticise him for taking his newly purchased feudal superiorities too seriously, and stepping into the character of a remote and arrogant 19th-century laird.

In Boghead, he sought settlement of casualty payments from Mr. George Malone. Mr. Malone is 82 and, according to press reports, faced a substantial bill to settle his casualty debt to Mr. Hamilton. Mr. Hamilton commented on the case to the Sunday Mail, saying:

Those words sum up Mr. Brian Hamilton.

I have had the opportunity to examine in some detail the recommendations and evidence of the Scottish Land Commission. In the course of 10 public hearings, the commissioners spoke to almost 200 individuals representing groups as diverse as the Scottish Landowners Federation, tenants, crofters and farmers. The examples of land abuse that the commission uncovered are instructive. They included the case of an individual who could not get a grant for a development because the owner of the land in question could not be traced--an example of the incredible secrecy surrounding land ownership in Scotland.

From questions tabled last Session by me and my colleagues on this Bench, it is quite clear that the Government are among the most ignorant--at least, they say they are--when it comes to the question of who owns Scotland. Reform is needed to open up information relating to every aspect of land and the grants given to large estates to develop their land.

Such issues highlight another example from my constituency. The Gardenstown Harbour Trust had to fight for 40 years and trace and translate an obscure mediaeval document before it could prove to the Crown Estate Commissioners that it did not owe mooring fees in its own harbour to the Crown. The Crown Estate Commissioners' actions throughout much of Scotland are disgraceful--chasing vassals with the fervour of Mr. Hamilton, they are obsessively secretive and inadequately accountable, and change and reform are long overdue.

The Scottish Land Commission highlighted the abuse of feudal laws by councils and organisations such as Scottish Homes. It received evidence pointing to the activities of some local authorities and housing agencies that insert feudal conditions into deeds for those purchasing their council houses. The council then sits in judgment on what our constituents do in their own homes, just as it did when it was the real landlord. To add insult to injury, it then charges a fee for doing so.

The land and property law of our country should not be a mechanism that allows some people to make a fast buck. It should not allow one group of individuals to interfere in the property rights of the majority. For all those reasons, it is surely clear to even this Government that Scotland's law is in urgent need of reform.

6 Nov 1996 : Column 1159

What is the Government's legislative response in the coming Session? It is the Transfer of Crofting Estates (Scotland) Bill--too little, too late. The Government's proposals fail not only to meet the challenge of land reform, but to give the wider crofting community what it desperately wants and needs--more land, bigger holdings and opportunities for new entrants into crofting.

The Government's proposals nevertheless open up the opportunity for genuine debate on land reform in this House. Perhaps, acting together, the Opposition parties could extend the clauses on pre-emption in that Bill to all people in Scotland. There may be a chance to talk about the real needs of crofters and other communities throughout Scotland. The Secretary of State has a cherished public relations touch, which matches his Thatcherite zeal to sell everything whether it moves or not, but his zeal in this cause might well result in land hitting the top of the political agenda. I look forward to the debate on the subject, because the Secretary of State will lose and the people of Scotland will win.

I am grateful to Mr. Andrew Wightman, who recently published "Who Owns Scotland?"--an update of the pioneering work done some 20 years ago by the late Mr. John McEwan. He relates a possibly apocryphal story about a Fife miner, who is walking home one night with a brace of pheasants in his pocket. He meets a landowner who informs him that that land is his, so he had better hand over the pheasants, double quick. "Your land?" says the miner. "Yes," replies the laird, "my land and my pheasants." "And who did you get your land from?" inquires the miner. "Well, I inherited it from my father." "Who did he get it from?" the miner continues; the laird splutters, "His father, of course. The land has been in my family for over 400 years." "Okay, so how did your family come to own the land 400 years ago?" "They fought for it." "Fine," says the miner, "Take your jacket off and we'll fight for the pheasants." The story is apocryphal and humorous.

Next Section

IndexHome Page